How the NBA’s midseason tournament can save the regular season

How the NBA’s midseason tournament can save the regular season


 

Would an NBA in-season tournament work?

Would an NBA in-season tournament work?
Image: Getty Images

The modern NBA fan is more likely to binge on a Netflix series over the weekend instead of following a network storyline for 22 episodes. So, of course, watching an 82-game slog seems longer and more tedious than ever. The NBA recognizes this shift in attitudes and has seen it trickle down to its own workforce. Players are mentally and physically checking out earlier in the year, load management has watered down the regular-season product, and Kyrie Irving seemingly dips out for a couple weeks of PTO every winter.

Even Commissioner Adam Silver thinks the NBA regular season sucks and is trying to throw some seasoning over it without ruining the recipe completely. In an interview with Yahoo Sports during the most recent All-Star weekend, Silver broached the idea of shortening the schedule permanently to incorporate a midseason tournament.

A 67-to-72-game season, like the one played in 2021, would probably solve their issues, but it’s a lot to ask of a league that’s been committed to 82-game seasons since 1967. Owners and players also have no interest in reducing gate receipts or basketball-related income from those extra home games, no matter how small a percentage it is of the total pie.

The NBA midseason tournament has been discussed every few months throughout Silver’s tenure as commissioner. Silver has recently disclosed that negotiations have begun with the union about some sort of instituting a midseason tournament, but according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the NBA is mulling over a midseason tournament as early as 2023.

A midseason cup is coming to the NBA this decade. Here’s what they should consider before they goof things up too badly.

Incentives

Whatever the NBA decides to do, they’ll have to thread a needle. An in-season tournament that detracts from the championship will need incentives for stars to participate, especially those from contenders. Otherwise, teams will accumulate excessive midseason DNPs at an even higher rate for their starters by using the tournament to showcase their G League call-ups and younger reserves. The last thing the NBA wants to do is propose something that exacerbates that problem.

So what’s the solution? A million dollar-bonus for each player has been proposed before, but NBA rotation players aren’t putting in extra work outside their already established schedule for less than eight figures. The prospect of an extra draft pick for this tournament would be the sort of variable that could motivate star players, especially those stuck on middling but not quite mediocre teams searching for a path to contention.

The promise of an extra draft pick has been tossed around isn’t new, but the pick being 15th or in the NBA Draft Lottery is. Essentially, by winning the midseason cup, a team would be awarded the lowest odds in the Draft Lottery. The potential to draft a potential trajectory-altering talent is the only way they’ll get someone like Dame Lillard or Joel Embiid on the floor for the second half of a back-to-back in December for more than a cameo if it doesn’t count against the playoff standings. I’ve heard critics such as Bill Simmons argue that elite teams wouldn’t care about a draft pick, but that’s near-sightedness. Lebron may have no time for grooming first-round picks, but that’s an asset his Lakers team could weaponize in a trade for a veteran All-Star. To prevent a competitive imbalance from forming by one team stacking picks, the NBA must stipulate that no team can win it twice in a row and the reigning champs should be automatically disqualified.

In-Season Cup, not a Midseason Tournament

The G League’s Showcase Cup is a petri dish for how the NBA’s in-season tourney would most likely be executed. The G League idea involves four regional pods where teams play 12 games against one another and the four teams with the best win percentage advance to a single-elimination tournament. It bears a strong resemblance to the WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup, consisting of 10 games per team, from the first home and road games each team plays against its conference or divisional rivals. That’s an intentional decision on the NBA’s part.

Both Cup proposals borrow from the European soccer model and wouldn’t disrupt the NBA schedule because 90 percent of the tournament would be deftly stitched into the prodigious NBA schedule. Essentially, the first two regular season games against teams in your pod would double as in-season tournament games. After points are tallied, the knockout stages commence. It creates another data point for fans to stress over and gives more weight to regular season games in the dog days of December and January.

Single-Elimination Tournament

If the NBA wants their facsimile of the NCAA Tournament crossbred with the Maui Invitational, it wouldn’t be as time-consuming as it sounds. Thirty teams, including two first-round byes for the two top seeds, would result in five extra games for the eventual champion. This two-week long cup could give the NBA fan base contingent precisely what they’ve always wanted. A glimpse into a world where the NBA champ is decided in a winner-take-all, single-elimination game and an intraconference tournament that ignores conference partitions.

If the regular NBA playoffs are the Boston Marathon, this is the 100-meter dash. There will be no adjustments heading into Game 2, neutral location games and the audience won’t be fatigued by a playoff marathon. This one would be a sprint. The most exciting thing about this tournament is that because it would take place over the course of a few games, all it would take is a team to get hot for a Cinderella story.

Battle for the Intercontinental Title

An intercontinental tournament wouldn’t match the single elimination idea thrown around, but what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in scope. If the NBA wants an outside-the-box midseason tournament, it should span the globe and reach beyond the NBA’s borders. The NBA Finals champion has been casually declared world champion for decades. That top dog status has never been disputed because the NBA has always been the superior product, but even that gap is shrinking. The world is catching up in national team competitions, but are its domestic leagues nipping at the NBA’s heels at all?

Would they play under FIBA rules, NBA rules, or a hybrid? That part is what makes it fun. FIBA and NBA rules vary in a multitude of ways, but the most significant differences are their shorter 3-point line, five fouls being the personal foul limit instead of six, no lane violations and goaltending off the rim is allowed. For maximum fairness, they can alternate each year between the two.

By record, the top four teams in the NBA should be defending the NBA’s right to call their champs the world champions against the EuroLeague’s top four. For instance, a tournament in 2022 would have featured a top-seeded FC Barcelona team led by Nikola Mirotić, Dante Exum and Alex Abrines. Olympiacos Piraeus, AX Armani Exchange Milan would have rounded out the top four teams who’d be enlisted for single-elimination matchups against the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies. Eight teams, three games. NBA players have enough pride in their league to play three extra games when the NBA’s ability to call their Finals winner a world champion is on the line. Worst case scenario, this idea is a few decades too early and the elite EuroLeague squads will tire of seeing their best teams getting faded like one of young Mike Tyson’s sparring partners.

Elam Ending

Yes, this Kraken has risen again. The NBA should go all-in on this concept only for the knockout rounds though. To differentiate the midseason cup competition from anything else in basketball, including Spain’s distinguished Copa del Rey tournament, the Elam Ending should be how Cup knockout stage games should conclude.

For the uninitiated, the Elam Ending was originated by Nick Elam, founder of The Basketball Tournament and co-opted by the NBA for its All-Star Game. The Elam Ending would essentially replace the clock in the final frame. Instead, a Target Score would be set based on the score at the beginning of the quarter and the first team to reach the Target Score wins. For example, the All-Star Game sets the Target Score at 24 points more than the total for the team leading after three quarters. For instance, if the Blazers lead Orlando 100-95 after three quarters, the target score would be 124.

It doesn’t interfere with the basic tenets of basketball, and it creates an opportunity for more electrifying finishes. If Adam Silver is going to optimize the sport, optimize it all the way.



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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.